Arsenal have had their poorest start to the Premier League ever under Arsene Wenger this season. Why?
It is often tricky to know what to make of the Premier League table early on into the season, but we are now into November - the time where the table begins to start taking shape.
Arsenal sit in seventh, which isn't the end of the world this early on, but the fact they are nine points off the league leaders already has to be a concern.
Arsene Wenger has expressed that fact, describing his side as 'very far away' from being title challengers.
How did it go so wrong so quickly?
There are various factors, some easy to pinpoint, others not so easy to explain. In my pre-season predictions I had tipped Arsenal to push the top teams all the way for the title this year.
I did not and do not expect them to win the trophy, but at least be contenders and remain in the hunt until around April. It was a hope expressed by Wojciech Szczesny at the end of last season, confident that the side were really coming together.
Many fans bought into it, and as a neutral observer my feeling was that the pieces were slotting into place for Arsenal to have an exciting season. Right now there is a big gap between achievement and expectation and this is what is causing so much friction at the club at present between supporters and management.
Here is a look at 10 reasons why the season has not gone to plan for the Gunners so far...
1) Selling Robin van Persie in August
Take away a striker who scored 37 goals for a club in one season from any side and you will be hard pushed to replace him. But it wasn't just the goals, Van Persie was Arsenal's captain and talisman and losing him hurt even the manager. It was a seismic decision, one which may even influence the title race, but Arsenal's problem was once again allowing the saga to drag on until one week before the Premier League season. The club should have made a quick sale a month earlier so they could have prepared better and knew where they stood in advance, from a tactical point of view, and from that of ending the unsettling uncertainty it would have had on the squad, instead Arsenal ended up looking weak by trying to keep him before caving in at the last minute to a rival.
2) No replacement signed for the Dutchman
Early on in the summer Arsene Wenger was adamant that both Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were signed to play alongside Van Persie and not to replace him. So the decision not to spend any money on an extra striker left fans disappointed and bemused. Was Wenger simply lying all along? No? Then why not spend money on a replacement and risk leaving the team short. Despite his Capital One Cup showing last week, seeing Marouane Chamakh on the bench at Old Trafford illustrated exactly where Arsenal are in terms of striking depth. Yet this was clear before the transfer window closed, and while it is perceived the club will add to their ranks in January, it could be too little too late as far as a title challenge goes.
3) Thomas Vermaelen's lack of form
Thomas Vermaelen is the Arsenal captain, yet has not led by example over the past few games. He was at fault for Van Persie's goal at Old Trafford, and has been caught flat footed on more than one occasion so far. He even looks the weak link among both of Arsenal's other top centre-backs, Mertesacker and Koscielny, yet because he is captain he has not been dropped. He has shown none of the attacking prowess either which has helped impress Arsenal fans since his arrival either. His form, or lack of it, is one of the most difficult elements of Arsenal's season to explain, but one of the most important.
4) Abou Diaby's injury
Abou Diaby started this season like a train, and was utterly dominant in the Gunners 2-0 win at Anfield in early September. It looked like he was finally coming good and repaying Arsenal fans for their patience placed in him over the years. Then injury predictably struck, and he has not been seen since the defeat to Chelsea, and his absence has been telling. Arsenal really missed him at Old Trafford at the weekend, and he offers the Gunners a completely new dimension. If he cannot recover soon then Wenger will have to look at his options in the transfer window come January. Tomas Rosicky's continued absence adds to the issues in midfield which have seen Jack Wilshere rushed back somewhat.
5) Wojciech Szczesny's injury
Young Pole Wojciech Szczesny has established himself as Arsenal's number one, and was one of the club's most consistent performers last season. Injury has prevented him from playing much of a role this season, and the one game he did play in against Southampton he looked rusty. Vito Mannone has come in, and not done too much wrong, but he does not have the same presence or authority which Sczcesny does. The Pole also showed a real chemistry with his defence and teammates last season which the defence is currently missing.
6) Theo Walcott's contract situation
Arsene Wenger and Theo Walcott may both deny the ongoing contract dispute is a distraction, but when it is a topic of every interview for player and manager it is hard to believe that. Walcott has found himself sidelined for much of the campaign so far, and only over the last fortnight has he begun to show flashes of what he can do, with a well taken goal against Schalke last night. With it reaching November, time is ticking down until the winger can negotiate with other clubs in January, and rumours are mounting that the winger will exit the club. It adds to the gloom around the Emirates among supporters that another of their most prized players could be about to walk out on them and the club cannot prevent it.
7) Lack of cover for Kieran Gibbs
Kieran Gibbs is arguably Arsenal's most important defender, because their lack of cover for him is part laughable and part non-existent. The left-back is also quite under appreciated, most noticeable by the Gunners' struggles in his absence. The hapless Andre Santos is his stand-in, by his lack of defensive prowess is fast becoming a major concern for the club. He has the unwanted statistic of being the defender who has been dribbled past more than any other in the Premier League this season - And he only played his first league game last month.
8) Lack of belief and direction
Fans are disenfranchised with the club's progress, and that does not make a harmonious working environment for the manager or a playing one. But you can't blame the supporters. Arsenal have the most expensive seats in the league, yet have gone seven years without a trophy. The path is opening up for them in the League Cup this year, but the league appears well past their grasp already. Most of all fans are unhappy at the handling of the Van Persie situation, which had a real sense of deja vu about it. Failing to spend the money they have from player sales has also angered the fans, who took to protest at the club's recent AGM, a meeting which solved nothing. Arsenal are currently swimming against the tide simply to stand still, rather than actually moving forward.
9) Tough early fixtures
Call this mitigation, but Arsenal's fixture list has been on the trickier side. They have faced trips to Old Trafford, the Etihad, Anfield and even bogey ground the Britannia, only losing one of those four. They have also faced a resurgent Chelsea who beat them 2-1. Compare this with champions Manchester City, who have faced just two of the other teams occupying the top seven. Of course it is sometimes the 'simpler' fixtures Arsenal slip up in, see a draw at home to Sunderland and a loss to Norwich, so nothing should be taken for granted going forward, but with both Manchester clubs having to visit the Emirates later in the season, the chance is there for the Gunners to still have their say and reclaw some pride.
10) New players still gelling
This is very much a new Arsenal side. Three first team players were added this season from three different European countries, and expecting seamless progression straight away was always a lot to ask. Santi Cazorla has shown superb signs so far this season of settling, while Podolski and Giroud have been a bit more hit and miss. Giroud has unfairly had to shoulder added responsibility after Van Persie was sold, which hasn't helped. It should be remembered that all three are learning to play with one another, and with their teammates, and against completely new opposition. As a result none of them are playing at their peak yet, meaning the Gunners are still just finding their way and so haven't found top gear.
Conclusion: It is not all bad at the Emirates despite the disection of their problems. There are plenty of positives for the team to take, and with better injury luck and spending in the right areas in January they will pick up. While it is hard to see the Gunners making good on their pledge to fight for the title, it is hard to imagine they will not have a major say in finishing among the Champions League places, and expect their fortunes to start improving soon, especially if they get a confidence boosting win in the North London derby in just under a fortnight's time.
What else has contributed to the Gunners' poor start?
image: © lodekka